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Day 8 of the Sierra Challenge saw us at the Onion Valley parking lot for the second day in a row, this time to use the Robinson Lake TH. Our goal today was unofficially named Junction Pass Peak, a 13,000-foot summit on the Sierra Crest just south of Junction Peak and west of Junction Pass. Our route would go up to Robinson Lake, up and over University Pass into Center Basin, then a hike along the old section of the PCT to Junction Pass that was abandoned in the 1930s when Forester Pass was completed. Only a few of the eight there for the 6a start were heading to the day's Challenge peak. Half were heading to University Peak while Jim planned to visit Center Peak. Michael Graupe, with an ambitious plan to tag Mt. Stanford in addition to the Challenge peak, had started an hour earlier.
We hiked past the sleeping campers at the campground to find the trail leading into the John Muir Wilderness and up to Robinson Lake. It took about 50min to reach the lake, after which the trail ended and the cross-country would begin. The first part of this is fairly easy, with the help of a braided use trail that climbs 900ft above the lake through forest and boulders to reach the cirque below University Pass. Normally, we would find the snow all but melted out here in August, but this year had more than usual and I would get much use out of the crampons. Tom and I were the first to reach the cirque where I paused to put on crampons, unnecessary as it turned out. They got me perhaps a hundred yards before the snow ended. Tom hadn't bothered to put them on and was a short distance ahead of me as I wandered across the boulder field into the bottom of the cirque. Matt had caught up with me by this time and we discussed the rock vs. snow options on University Pass. Tom was already ahead, aiming to stay on rock, scree and sand as high as possible when I decided to go with the meandering all-snow route. Matt chose similarly, but got behind while taking more time to put on his crampons. Some of the slopes were quite steep and the traversing a bit tricky, but the snow was quite solid in the cold morning air and held nicely under the bite of the crampons. We had seen another climber nearing the top of the pass while we were still at the bottom and surmised that it was probably Michael. He was out of sight only minutes after we started up. I passed up Tom about halfway to the pass when he stopped at the end of the rock section to put on crampons for the final section.
It was 8:40a when I reached the pass with no one else in sight but Tom not far below, still on his way up. I took only a minute to snap a few pictures looking east and west from the pass before going over the other side. Knowing it was steep and terribly loose in the chute there, I thought it better to get most of the way down before the next person started in it. The dry west side of the pass took me half an hour to make my way down. At the halfway point there is a large chockstone that requires some class 3 scrambling to get around, but otherwise most of the chute was your classic, crappy class 2 stuff so prevalent in the High Sierra. Once below in Center Basin, the hike takes on an entirely different flavor as the tedious stuff on either side of the pass is replaced with a mostly flat, delightful stroll through the beautiful basin with lakes, meadows, and towering peaks all around. I picked up the old trail right about where my GPSr told me to expect it and followed this on and off for more than an hour as I made my way to the head of the basin past Center Basin Crags, Mt. Bradley, Center Peak, Courte-Echelle and Mt. Keith. I lost the trail just above Golden Bear Lake where it crosses the marshy inlet area and is impossible to discern. It made little difference, however, since the cross-country travel is pretty tame almost anywhere you chose to go. I picked up the trail again after another mile and followed it up to the highest lakes in the basin before losing it a second time. I suffered through some tedious scrambling across boulders and talus to make my way uphill to the ridgeline between Junction Pass Peak and Center Peak, only to find the trail again (I had missed a turn where the trail switchbacks up to the ridge from the lakes below). By now I was more or less heading straight for the summit and found the trail unnecessary. It traverses across the north side of the peak to reach the pass to the east and it would be a bit out of the way to follow it all the way up.
It was 11:30a by time I finally topped out on the summit. Though I could see none of the participants making there way up through Center Basin, the JMT was only half a mile to the west rising up to Forester Pass and I could make out a dozen backpackers making there way along the trail in both directions. Junction Peak rises dramatically to the south only 1/3mi away, the connecting ridgeline looking quite difficult, in the class 4-5 range. None of us that looked at it today thought seriously of attempting that ridge. There were three registers found at the summit, the oldest dating to 1961. A second one was left in 1975. Gordon and Barbara left a third in the 1980s. It appears to be a fairly popular peak despite not being on any peak list, perhaps just due to its proximity to the old trail that still gets a good deal of use.
I spent only about 15min at the summit before starting back down, not sure if anyone else was going to be arriving anytime soon. As I was making my way down the northwest side, I spied Tom on the trail several hundred yards below me. He followed the trail as it traversed across the north side away from where I was heading and we never ended up within shouting distance of each other and I suspect he never even knew I was descending above him. I was aiming for the trail I could see along the ridge with the intention of following it back down into Center Basin. This turned out to be way better than the stuff I had crawled over after losing the trail the last time. It very neatly followed the ridgeline towards Center Peak before switchbacking down into the basin. I came across Matt along the trail in the switchbacks around 12:30p. We chatted briefly before continuing in opposite directions. I enjoyed the return down through the basin as much the second time and did a far better job of sticking to the trail all the way to Golden Bear Lake. I was not looking forward to the climb back over the pass, but did not dread it to the same degree that Matt did - he mentioned that he planned to return the loooong way back over Kearsarge Pass, likely hours longer. It would be 2:30p by the time I had clawed my way back up the chute on the west side, and another half hour or so to descend the snow on the east side (again I chose the all-snow route). While on my way down I spotted a group of four down below and made haste to catch up with them. It turned out to be Iris, Mason, Brad and Ken who were on their way back from a successful climb of University Peak. The five of us continued together back down to Robinson Lake, during which Iris provided some amusement falling in the snow and then a second time while she was crossing Robinson Creek and managed to soak one of her boots. Back on the trail, we continued down to Onion Valley with Mason and Iris, sporting some excess energy, jogged the last mile or so back to the TH, beating us by 10min. Another Challenge day was in the bag...
This page last updated: Thu Jan 16 08:26:45 2020
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